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For the third week running, on the first of April no less, Ted and I find ourselves parked under the plum tree at the Family Mart in Ōhara, stocking up on provisions to not only sustain us on today’s hike, but also for the long drive up to the Oisugi settlement in the upper reaches of Kutsuki village. The previous week, we had driven the car along the forest road to the headwaters of the Adogawa, but this time we park the car across from Omiya shrine at a junction of two crossroads. Our plan is simple: take the left fork and retrace our steps to Nabekubo-tōge and continue our northern hike along the Takashima to Onyū-tōge and follow the old Saba-kaidō back to our car.

We make good time on the drive and arrive at the shrine shortly after 8am, greeted by a plum tree in full bloom. The bare ridge soars above the collection of depilated dwellings in the hamlet, some of which are in desperate need of re-thatching. Upkeep on these traditional thatched farmhouses is extremely costly, so it’s no surprise that most homeowners of limited means simply cover the thatch with a more durable corrugated metal. An informative signboard sits in front of a recently constructed restroom facility, providing yet another relief of the bowels before commencing on the long slog back to Takashima’s hidden ridge.

The hamlet remains quiet and still in the light of the early morning, with nary a soul in sight — though to the trained eye you can just about make out the eyes peering from behind drawn curtains gazing suspiciously at the two masked foreigners marching through their front yard. We reach the trailhead in about 15 minutes, drop the facemasks, and follow the brook upstream toward where we had last left the Takashima. Despite it being a week between our last visit, the trail is hard to pick up in places, but thanks to our digital aid we soon find the correct tributary and reach Nabekubo-tōge (25) about an hour after leaving the car. We turn right, initially accompanied by a dense cedar plantation on our right before the completely natural forest takes over at the top of a steep rise.

Through a gap in the trees, the adjacent folds of mountain ridges appear to be sprinkled with dandruff flakes, but upon closer inspection Ted and I let out a yelp of joy to discover that the hills are ablaze in the brilliant white petals of the mighty kobushi or Magnolia kobus. These stalwart deciduous trees feature a six-fingered glove of bright white flowers covering their upper branches. They are a sight to behold and really do give the cherry blossoms a run for their money for those lucky enough to come across them.

These signs of spring bring a welcome vitality to our walk, and at the crest of our first unmarked peak a green waymark shows a horizontal distance of just 4.8km to Onyū-tōge, our planned departure point. “We could be back at the car by noon at this rate”, exclaims Ted. The Takashima thinks otherwise.

Never judge a route by the horizontal distance to be covered — a vertical elevation profile is a much better way to access a walk. Without such vital information our hike turns into a roller coaster of a ridge walk, as it rises up and over a series of smaller peaks before dropping to a long saddle and turning into what Amber Heard’s lawyer can only describe as a ‘mega’ slog. I turn around and give Ted that all-too-familiar look indicating the start of a big climb. It won’t be the first time that expression is painted on my face on this fateful day.

Our conversation peters out to a series of grunts and profanities, mostly from my motormouth as I dig deep within my depleted energy reserves. It is best just to lower your head and work through the discomfort of the straining calf muscles as the feet struggle to continue their upward fight against gravity. The one upside to our muscular torment is that the scenery is second-to-none. Never in my wildest dream would I think that such an untouched and sprawling beech forest snuggles the Shiga-Fukui prefectural border along the central divide. Such spectacular beauty gives us the impetus to continue our forward progress. Giving up would be out of the question.

Even though our pace resembles that of an injured turtle, we somehow reach the summit of peak 803 in less time than indicated on the map. This gain in time, however, is quickly lost as we settle in for a well-deserved mid-morning snack and leisurely break. Once again, Lara comes to the rescue as Ted and I continue to expose each other to new trail nibbles. These all-natural fruit bars satiate our appetite and the caffeinated sports Yōkan helps us ward off the drowsiness caused by the 3am alarm clock. Restored vigor leads to a timely photo opp in the gap between two beech trees joined at the hips.

Our route diverges northwest briefly and drops to a tiny pond marked on the map as Okusuge, though there is nothing in the way of a signpost to indicate an official name for the nearly-dried marsh. Perhaps this area is a bit wetter in the summer season. We skirt around this depression and follow the tape marks as we change directions to the east and head upwards toward yet another unnamed peak. About two-thirds of the way up this slope we pass by an enormous horse-chestnut tree that appears to be home to a bear’s feeding platform. We don’t loiter around long to enough to check for inhabitants.

At the crest of the rise we once again teeter on the sea-saw ridge, taking in the views between gaps in the trees while the talk turns to vaccinations. Japan is about 6 months behind the rest of the world rolling out the inevitable inoculation as we place bets on which will come first, our completion of the Takashima, or our turn at the needle.

Those dark olive leaves of the diapensia plants that have been accompanying us on our journey finally show us their reproductive parts, as a series of majestic pink petals of the iwakagami flower finally begin to open. We can sense that summer is just around the corner as the rising heat of the late morning coaxes us to roll up our sleeves and make quick work of the ridge. Soon enough we spot a sign of encouragement: 700 meters to Onyū-tōge. I quicken my pace in anticipation of our arrival, only to be thwarted by the abrupt change in grade. It feels as if Ted and I are climbing up the transition of the quarter pipe of the Megaramp. Our only solace is that the vistas have really opened up behind us, revealing the Hira mountains in all of their beauty.

We enter a dry area of crumbly dirt scree sandwiched between groves of giant beech and cedar. Sweat flows freely from our temples as I once again gaze back at Ted in disbelief. If not for the proximity of the mountain pass I would surely like nothing more than to slouch down for a long break. At long last, we reach the top of yet another unnamed peak and find a sign informing us that our break point is just 100 meters to our right. We coast down to the paved road awaiting us at Onyū-tōge (24), the first asphalt crossing of the Takashima (or final crossing if you’re doing this hike in reverse). This would be an ideal place for your support team to greet you with cold drinks and a well-prepared meal but on this particular Wednesday, there is nary a soul in sight.

Instead of breaking here and heading off the trail, we discover that another pass is just a further 700 meters along the ridge, so after walking on asphalt for a few minutes we duck back into tree cover and reach Negorizaka-tōge at 11:35am, well ahead of schedule. This is the junction of the Saba-kaidō or old mackerel road, a route that fishmongers once used to deliver fresh fish to landlocked Kyoto city. We sit next to an old jizō statue and pore over the maps while chowing down on rice balls and other carb-laced delicacies. I remember this pass during my first climb of Hyakuri back in 2014 but never thought I would be sitting here 7 years later contemplating a second round with the mighty beast, but here we are.

Since it is still before noon, I propose to Ted that we should not only ascend Hyakuri this afternoon, but we should also continue along the ridge another 2-1/2km to Kijiyama-tōge, which will put us in good shape for our next stage of the trail. The only challenge with this is that we will have to retrace our steps back to Negorizaka-tōge so we can descend back to the car. Future Takashima trekkers should take note that section hiking this trail with only one automobile certainly is not the most efficient way to do the hike.

I guide Ted along this next section of path, pointing out landmarks that I remember from 7 years ago and giving plenty of warning to the steepness of the climb. With such pleasant weather we can see Hyakuri towering directly above us, which is both a blessing and a curse — for we can see what needs to be done before we can breach the fortress walls. Fixed ropes are a welcome addition as we push on through the lunch hour. We simply lower our heads as the switchbacks continue to steepen and dig deep within our inner strength as we inch toward the panoramic views of majestic summit. We surprise ourselves by popping out on top of Mt Hyakuri-ga-take (22) shortly before 12:30pm.

An elderly gentleman is settled in for a lunch break as we usher a quick greeting. He has climbed from the Fukui side of the mountain and is just as surprised to see us as we are to see him. Despite being three days into our trek, he is the first hiker we have come across, a testament to the remoteness of the Takashima trail and the difficulty of access. Instead of breaking here, Ted and I continue due north and immediately start losing altitude: the beech gives way to cedar and cypress before flattening out on an elongated ridge. We push past peak 711, vowing to have our own convenience store-inspired break on the return. The map indicates a 70 minute journey to Kijiyama-tōge (21) but we reach it in just 45 minutes and pause just long enough to snap a photo before turning around for our re-ascent of Hyakuri.

Peak 711 can not come soon enough as Ted and I settle among the rock formations on our pre-determined break point. I bust out the chocolate while Ted polishes off the afternoon tea bottle and we once again stare at the maps, wondering if we will be able to complete our hike before dark. The one advantage we have is that I know the route we need to take as it is the same descent trail I took back in 2014. After our invigorating snack, we force ourselves to our feet for the excruciating return to the summit. Three hundred vertical meters later, with burning calfs and tingly thighs, Ted and I give each other a high-five back on the top of Hyakuri and really take time to cherish the views. Time check: 2:04pm. We do in 90 minutes what most hikers would usually accomplish in well over 2 hours.

The drop off of Hyakuri is agonizing, but the fixed ropes aid in cushioning our descent. The most demoralizing part of the route is that, once you pass a junction for the Hyakuri Shindō route, you have to climb up Mt Hakuishi before dropping back to Negorizaka-tōge, but three-quarters of the way up, we discover a faint path to our right that avoids the summit and meets up with the track shortly before the pass. We would like to thank the kind animal that forged that path for us, even if it was made by the shapeshifting kitsune.

With no time to waste we immediately turn left at Negorizaka-tōge and bade farewell to the Takashima in favor of the Saba-kaidō. The route parallels a paved road and meets it briefly once, but for the most part we stay in the forest and navigate through a cluster of truly stunning Magnolia kobus trees in full bloom. The late afternoon light illuminates the petals like a spotlight on a stage actor and with no more ascents between us and the car the smiles once again return to our exhausted faces. At the bottom of the valley Ted admits that in his walk of the Saba-kaidō he somehow completely missed this section. Instead, he seems to have spent most of his time bushwhacking up a parallel valley if his memory serves him correctly. The last 20 minutes back to the car is a breeze, and with the fading light of the day we are already strategizing about stage 4 of our hike. For one, we will no longer be required to access the trail from this valley. We can now turn our attention to Aso village at the base of Kijiyama. Can we knock off the next section before Golden Week?

Part 4

It’s been exactly a week since our start on the Takashima, and here we are once again up in the bowels of northern Kutsuki. We need to ascend back to the ridge line to Iwatani-tōge, but instead of the steep spur from the previous week, Ted and I spy a forest road that will take us most of the way up towards Jizo-tōge, a further 3.8km along the ridge. Our plan? Walk up to Jizo and do a quick up-and-back along the ridge to Iwatani before continuing our northern trek to Makino.

Fortunately for us, the forest road is in decent condition, with just a few small potholes to maneuver around. We park next to the headwaters of the Adogawa river, marked by a small signpost and home to a toilet block in working order. With a water source nearby, it would be make a good place to camp for thru hikers as long as the mountain leeches are behaving themselves.

A deep cobalt sky accompanies us on the meandering walk along the dirt road towards the ridge. The bare canopy of the forest seeks the warmth of the sun as the shaded slopes cling tightly to their dusted coating of fresh snow. At Jizō-tōge (27) a gate across the road serves as the only indicator that we are standing at one of the entrances to the Ashiu forest, a protected woodlands under the jurisdiction of Kyoto University. It was in these woods that we inadvertently wandered during Day 1 of our section hike and Jizō pass serves as our entrance point for the start of today’s walk.

Our first mission is to backtrack to the east for 3.8km to Iwatani-tōge where we finished our first day. Leaving the road on our left, we climb a steep embankment that leads to a broad slope smothered with giant beech trees. To our right, one such tree plays host to an impressive collection of parasitic mistletoe clinging tightly to the silvery branches. Those looking for that festive holiday decoration just need to bring their own shotgun so they can shoot it out of the sky.

Remnants of last night’s snowfall provides a soft flooring under our shuffling feet as we enter a thick grove of rhododendron to reach an unnamed summit hosting an ancient Mongolian oak of an immense size. A depilated signpost points to the east, so we turn left here and hug the broad ridge as it guides us through an idyllic paradise of untracked hardwoods. So few are the visitors to this ridge that nary a trace remains, so we frequently consult with our digital navigation devices in hopes for a safe passage through the untamed wilderness.

The track undulates, sometimes dropping to a short saddle before gaining a few meters over a series of false summits. We have our work cut out for us on the return journey, but for now we can do nothing other than to set our sights on reaching the pass. After skirting past a partial clearing with bewitching vistas to the north, we pass over an 800m peak that the map refers to as Kabeyoshi (カベヨシ), which serves as our halfway point distance wise. An ancient Ashiu cedar tree stands guard as if to warn us that we still have quite a ways to go.

Stalwart strands of giant beech serve as loyal sentries to guide us through the wild labyrinth of virgin forest that sits on the edge of the protected lands of Ashiu. As we navigate through this forgotten terra firma, it dawns on us that we are experiencing a step back in time, to the true Japan of our ancestors, a place that many seek but seldom find. Centuries ago, most of Japan’s forests bore a striking resemblance to our current scenery, before modern industrialization led to the bureaucratic infatuation with trying to tame nature with monocultural seedling practices and the plastering of the hillsides in cement. We can do little more than walk in awe, humbled by the immense wilderness spread out before us.

Alas, one final drop brings us to Iwatani-tōge, where we perch ourselves on the exact same tree trunk as the previous week and dig into our provisions. It has taken us most of the morning to walk just 3.8km but we know the return journey would feel shorter as long as we keep moving. Thanks to the help of Ted’s traveling companion Lara we retrace our steps with renewed vigor.

Once back at Jizō-tōge, we continue north by first walking a short distance on the road back toward the car before veering left up an incredibly steep track marked with a series of tape marks affixed to the trees. The hillside looks like it would give way any minute, forcing us to work quickly up the switchbacks until gaining the ridge a short distance above our heads, where the terrain becomes a bit more forgiving. With stunning vistas to our left down to the Ashiu forests and plenty of virgin terrain spread out before us, our spirits are high as we keep our eyes on the lookout for signs of wildlife, ursine or otherwise.

The trekking poles help propel us along the ebbs and flows of the broad ridge, through yet more incredibly healthy swaths of pristine beech forest. At one broad saddle we notice a series of wildlife cameras installed to likely keep tabs on the bear population. We do a quick shuffle as we pass, knowing that some researcher will likely get a kick out of our improvised boogie brought on by the good forest vibes, spectacular weather, and sleep deprivation.

We push higher, following the contours as they lead past a track to the east that would take us directly down to the car if needed, but in these conditions it would be foolish to end our hike now. Instead, our route ushers us to an expansive depression hosting an elongated pond that is nearly dry with the lack of recent rainfall. We skirt the edge of this basin before an abrupt ascent to our left leads to the summit of Mikuni-tōge (26), where we settle in for a late lunch. My watch reads just before 2pm and we’ve made good progress considering the rugged ground we had covered. The kanji characters cause problems for many hikers, as both Sangoku and Mikuni are two different readings of the same kanji (三国).

A signboard on the summit indicates that the ridge leading west of here is off limits to those without special permission to enter, as it is within the boundaries of Ashiu forest; though I have heard stories of other hikers using this ridge as a way of linking up Hachigamine further west. It’s an enticing route, and I’m sure the researchers would be perfectly fine with you sticking to the ridge as long as you aren’t poaching wild flora or fauna.

Ted and I study the maps and spy a side track further along our route that will lead us back to the car. This should set up a more manageable Day 3 of our journey. With that in mind, we drop back down to the pond, bidding farewell to Kyoto Prefecture and continue to the northeast on a long descent to Nabekubo-tōge (25). A third of the way down the slope, a clearing on our left affords us with our first view of the twin-peaked Mt Aoba floating off the horizon to the northwest. It’s hard to believe that we are so close to the Sea of Japan, but then again, we are walking on the divide, so I suppose it does make sense.

At Nabekubo, we take leave of the Takashima for today and head down a rugged valley to the southeast. It’s a short 40-minute descent back to the paved forest road, where we turn right for the walk back to the car. With the Kyoto section of the trail now behind us, we spend the return drive back to the city in full-on planning mode, deciding that we should be able to reach Mt Hyakkuri in the next installment of our section hike.

Part 3

Mid-March. We can put off this endeavor no longer. The drive northward takes an hour, with an obligatory stopover at the Family Mart in Ōhara for nourishment and lavatory relief. Ted parks the car under a weeping plum tree in the convenience store parking lot and we make good use of the facilities before continuing up route 367 past the Buna-ga-take trailhead and further west on route 781 into the bowels of Kutsuki village. We park on the shoulder of the road, hop over a barrier, and stroll up a gravel forest road while studying the maps on our digital navigation devices. I signal to Ted to turn left on an incredibly steep forest road, which he reluctantly agreesthough his map indicates that following the stream is the most direct approach. We ascend to nearly the top of the spur until I zoom out on my map and realize, to my utter disbelief, that we are actually on the entirely wrong route. In our enthusiasm to hit the trail we had parked the car too early and were following a rather obscure and seldomly used track to Migo-goe (ミゴ越) on the far side of Kyo-ga-take (経ヶ岳). After some consultation, and a reflection upon our arduous track record, we both agree that a wise retreat back to the car is our best bet.

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Once back at the vehicle, we indeed find the proper trailhead further along the paved road and park the car next to a farmer’s field near Kuwarabashi bridge. As we walk toward the bridge, a signpost indicates that today’s route sits along the so-called Fairy Trail, a trail-running race that will likely turn you into a fairy should you choose to brave the leeches and summer rains to participate. With the trail-running boom come more and more of these long-distance races that seem to be set up as a way to cash in on the trend. Joining these races will usually set you back at least one Fukuzawa note. If I were into trail running I would just save some money and run the race courses off season for free but I guess the idea of joining a race is to share your misery with fellow-minded sadists. Just beyond the bridge we find a large signpost for the Takashima trail and follow the first few meters of the track up into a damp forest of moss and cedar.

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As we work out war up the switchbacks towards the ridge line, the conversation soon turns to self-publishing and the challenges of working with editors and the publishing industry. Since both of us are seasoned authors, with my guidebook and his walking anthology, the enthralling conversation gets our mind off the long climb, taking us up and out of the cedar plantations and onto a wild spur punctuated with the contorted limbs of the Ashiu-sugi trees dotted along the rarely trodden route.

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Shrubs of rhododendron and andromeda add a green accent to the hazel tones of the forest floor as the spur gently guides us towards the towering ridge above. To our left, the slopes crescendo abruptly down a ravine choked with years of rock and tree fall, while to our right the contours fall away into Tamba valley and the sounds of a hidden stream flowing through the untouched valley. As the sun licks the trail all around us, we peel off the layers in an effort to speed the evaporation of sweat from our overheated bodies.

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The route is liberally plastered with yellow tape reading Takashima Trail, affixed to the tree branches at such regular intervals that would give the Tanabata Festival in Sendai a run for its money. Don’t get me wrong way marks are an integral part of any long-distance trail, but perhaps stringing them every five meters is a bit overkill.  Just below the true ridge, our track converges with the upper reaches of Tamba valley, whose trough is dotted with patches of lingering snow. Fortunately, an unusually warm winter means that we are spared the agony of potholing through the usual thigh-deep drifts.

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We reach the junction at Tanbagoe (31), the first of the 31 official Takashima trail posts lining the route. Ted and I pause here and try to imagine what life must have been like in the begone days as travelers used this route to enter Tanba province from neighboring domain of Wakasa. A tea house was erected here in centuries past to provide rest and most likely served as a checkpoint during the more turbulent times in Japan’s feudal history. A famous song, penned by the renowned Enka lyricist Ryūtarō Kinoshita, uses the Tanbagoe as the setting for a lover’s lament:

The Takashima trail heads northwest towards the first peak of Sangoku-dake, but Ted and I instead head south along the main ridge on the Shiga-Kyoto Prefectural border. The path ascends abruptly through a thicket of sprawling rhododendron to an unnamed summit, where route finding becomes a bit tricky. After a bit of a search through the overgrown brush, a careful study of the GPS coaxes us further southeast to the correct route which soon spits us out on a dirt forest road. Even the plantation overlords have made their presence known in these hidden upper depths of Kyoto. Fortunately the route soon leaves this blight and sends us up an impossibly steep slope to the summit of Kyō-ga-dake (経ヶ岳), where we pause for refreshments. A recently erected signpost proclaims that this is post #32 of the Takashima Trail. So much for the Takashima Trail terminating at Kuwahara perhaps this is a new extension?

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Instead of continuing past Kyō-ga-dake and into the unknown, we retreat back to Tambagoe junction and return to official Takashima Trail territory, where a dense network of hardwood and conifers envelop the broad ridge of wild golden grasses and withered weeds. To say these hidden heights of Kyoto are untracked would be a disservice: we are completely alone, following the contours of the land as if we are the first ones to ever set foot in this magical paradise. A clearing between lofty trees would make for the perfect filming location if not for the difficult access and lack of amenities.

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Armies of great buna, or beech trees, stand guard all around us, whose bare canopies stretch out in open arms towards the cobalt sky. It is these virgin buna groves that accompany us, as passive escorts, on our 80km march to Takashima. Ted and I gaze skyward as these hardwood centenarians demand our attention and respect. Forward progress is slowed as we aim to capture with our memories what cannot be captured through film.

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We follow the undulating ebbs and flows of the ridge, through swaths of iwakagami plants, an endemic species of the diapensia family that can be usually be found in abundance in the Suzuka mountains and the highlands of Gifu Prefecture. The pink flowers usually open in late spring, but for now the raisin-colored leaves wait patiently for the spring thaw and the promise of a continued perennial existence.

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A junction is soon reached, signposted for the summit of Sangoku, on a side track just off the main Takashima trail to the southwest. We turn here, edging along the top of a slope of verdant fescue grass poking through gaps in the receding snowpack. It has been an unusually warm winter, and the meter-deep snowfields are nowhere to be found, giving Ted and I a sense of relief considering our previous close call.

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Shortly after the lunchtime chimes, we arrive at the bear-scarred signpost on the summit of Mt Sangoku (三国岳)(29) and take a well-deserved break in the soothing sunshine. Many hikers mistake the reading of the kanji for Mikuni but the name is apt as it sits on the border of the old provinces of Tamba, Yamashiro, and Ōmi. Now it doubles as the border between Kyoto and Shiga Prefectures and a quick look at our map indicates that our outstretched feet are actually in the northernmost terminus of Sakyō-ku in Kyoto city though we are literally hours away from what would traditionally encompass the border of the city. Over the last century, many smaller villages have been absorbed by the larger metropolitan areas, and even the summit of Mt Norikura in the Japan Alps is under the jurisdiction of Takayama city, though mostly in name only.

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We backtrack to the main trail and turn left, following the folds of the ridge until they become enveloped in a blanket of snow. A track to the northeast loops back to the car, so we search around for a signpost or bit of tape for the Takashima, and finally spot one as the route takes a hard left and follows an adjacent spur smothered in twisty Ashiu-sugi. A signpost dangling from its axis informs us that Iwatani-tōge, our intended target, is apparently located in hell.

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Pushing forward on the spur, we come across some green netting sitting by the side of the route, apparently ready to be spread over some endangered flora. The area looks neatly manicured, as if someone has been doing a bit of upkeep. Ted and I pause to consult with the GPS as we come to the realization that we have inadvertently stumbled into Ashiu primeval forest, a protected area under the jurisdiction of Kyoto University. Special permission is required to enter the area, so rather than risk an international incident, we retreat back to the dilapidated signpost, double check the map, and make a hard right here on a narrow spur that runs perpendicular to our current position. The spur is hidden by a thick grove of rhododendron and once we push through the first few meters the route becomes clear—we must lose altitude.

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And drop we do, along a precarious root-infested track with steep drops on our right. We pick our way through the contorted mess of imposing beech, cryptomeria and oak as it leads us, at last, to Iwatani-tōge (28). We pause for chocolate and study the maps. We’ve got 3.8km to go until the next pass, where a long forest road will lead us back to the car. The alternative is to leave the Takashima and drop to Hōtani and a more reasonable walk back that would save a couple of hours of walking. The choice is obvious as we bade farewell to the Takashima.

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A jumbled mess of thick rhododendron groves is our reward for choosing this route. Ted and I both turn to each other about a third of the way down and agree that coming back up this route would not be fun, for it involves a fair amount of route-finding and more time glued to our GPS than to the sights of the actual trail. The sound of moving water gradually comes within earshot as we snake past a gargantuan horse chestnut clinging tightly to the steep slopes. Improvised switchbacks through a carpet of thick cedar needles lead us to the shores of an idyllic mountain stream glistening in the late afternoon sun. Who knew such pristine tracks of land existed so close to civilization?

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We turn downstream and eventually meet up with the remnants of an old forest road that takes us back to route 781 and a twenty-minute stroll back to the car. After such an enthralling hike in breathtaking scenery, Ted turns to me with an enticing offer: “Shall we come back next week?”

Part 2 

Takashima Trail – Prologue

The Takashima trail is a long-distance hiking trail in northern Kansai that serves as the watershed divide between the Sea of Japan and Pacific Ocean. The 80km trail starts in Takashima city, running along the Shiga/Fukui border for most of the way until Mikuni-tōge (三国峠), where it then follows the Shiga/Kyoto border for the final 7.2 kilometers to Sangoku-dake (三国岳) further south in Takashima city in the former village of Kuwabara in the Kutsuki district. The majority of hikers start at Kunizakai ski resort and work their way southwest to Kutsuki, a route that generally takes 5 days to complete. Water sources are few and far between, making logistics a nightmare. With this in mind, Ted and I conjure up a plan to section hike the entire trail in reverse, starting in Kutsuki and working our way northeast to Kunizakai.

Can we make it before the start of the winter snows? Stay tuned.

Alastair and I navigate the fog-smothered switchbacks of the Odaigahara Driveway in the pre-dawn darkness, a stillness in the rent-a-car as my thoughts drift, along with my drowsiness, to the impending climb up to Kansai’s highest mountain. My last trip here back in 2004 was under clear autumn skies and precisely 14 years later we find ourselves blessed with similar conditions as Alastair pulls the vehicle into one of the last remaining spaces at the western entrance to Gyojagaeri tunnel. Despite the 6am arrival time, it appears that most of the day trippers have opted for an even earlier start as we shoulder our packs in the frosty breeze.

The path ascends gently past a concrete dam, following a gurgling brook upstream to a wooden footbridge spanning the frigid waters. Crossing over, the gradient immediately steepens as the route follows a root-infested spur under an ochre canopy just beginning to catch the first few rays of the rising sun. We make good work of the ridge, spurred on by the promise of a clear day and brilliant foliage. Our rucksacks are stuffed with just enough nourishment and fluids to see us through the 1000 meters of elevation gain to the summit, and the first gusts of wind from above bring a distinctively late-autumn vibe to the air.

Alastair leads a steady pace to the ridge junction, where we merge with the main track of the Okugake-michi, the ancient pilgrimage route connecting Hongu in the south with Yoshino in the north. I am back in familiar ground but the 14 year lapse between visits does little to jog my memory, for the leaves have already left the comfort of their canopies to rest of the forest floor for the remainder of the year. Temperatures must be below average this year if the mountains are already bracing for the winter snows.

A gentle incline through a mess of toppled trees leads us to the summit of Benten-no-mori, named after the Japanese goddess of music. As if on cue, the unmistakable sound of a horagai conch shell pierces the silence as we gaze our heads upwards to the formidable wall of Mt Misen rising directly in front of us. Though we cannot see the gyōja aesthetic, we certainly feel his presence as he announces his arrival at a prayer site. A veil of swift-moving cloud holds the ridge in its grasp, threatening to rob us of a view as we descend to the saddle and hut foundation remnants at Shōbō-no-shuku. A life-size statue of Shugendo founder En No Gyōja is perched on a rock formation, lathered with wooden votive sticks below the geta sandals attached to his feet. Most hikers rest here, preparing themselves for the steep 400-vertical-meter climb to the summit of Misen, so as I motion to Alastair for a break I notice to my sheer surprise that he has already taken off at breakneck speed toward the summit.

Alas, the spellbinding power of the Hyakumeizan. So many people get caught up in the peak hunting lifestyle that they rarely pause to take in the scenery. Here I am, a decade removed from my own climbing of the 100 venerable mountains, and I find the pursuit both inspiring and partly disgusting. Over 90% of the hikers are here with the same purpose: to climb one man’s subjective mountain list that was created over 50 years ago. Now don’t get me wrong – the Ōmine mountains are an incredibly beautiful and haunting place, and Fukada’s inclusion of the range is well-warranted. However, I feel that these mountains are much better appreciated slowly, like a well-crafted French course at a Michelin-starred restaurant. In fact, I come to the realization that this is my very first, and could very well be my last, day trip in these mountains, and the other 4 Chapters of this saga were done as overnight pursuits.

Rather than chasing after the peak hunter, I keep him within eyesight, content with letting him navigate the switchbacks in front while chatting with a solo male hiker who is also bagging this peak. I explain that I have already finished the Hyakumeizan and am nearly helping my friend achieve the same self-serving goal. Luckily I am not the only one to feel the fatigue and Alastair’s pace slows to a crawl in direct proportion to the rise in the gradient. We reach the first of the hundreds of wooden steps built into the hillside as I put aside my hunger, lethargy, and fatigue and simply lower my head and count steps. I let my footfalls slow in accordance with my breathing and enter that hiking trance that has sustained me through so many hikes in Japan’s deceptively tricky mountains.

At the top of the summit ridge we turn right, ignoring a rock outcropping on our left that is now covered in fog and several steps ahead we can make out the roofline of Misen hut. A few dozen hikers loiter about the hut, most of them standing and waiting for the drifting cloud to part. Finally, Alastair agrees to a short break as I collapse onto a bench and stuff as much caffeine into my body as will allow. I explain that we’ll have a steep drop to a saddle, followed by an even steeper climb to the top of Hakkyō. After the caffeine kicks in, I lead my hiking companion up to Misen shrine, which offers a birds-eye view across the saddle to the summit piercing the sky like an A-frame building.

The path to the summit starts next to the hut, marked by a stone pillar reading Hakken (八剣山), which confuses more than a few hikers looking for the path to Hakkyō. The former name pays homage to a series of eight craggy spires along the Okugake-michi, with Hakkyō being the highest and most prominent of those peaks. The heavily-eroded track leads us to a narrow saddle with steep drops on our right, followed by an abrupt ascent through a series of gates erected to keep deer from eating the endangered Ōyamarenge (Siebold’s magnolia) shrubs. Patches of melting snow line the shaded face of the peak, a reminder winter does indeed commence in early November in this highland range. We regain the summit ridge just below the high point, with dizzying crags to the east offering a quick end to those whose footing is less than secure. A quick rock scramble is all that separates us from the top, so I take a deep breath and make that final push.

Two dozen peak hunters litter the summit, all jostling their way to the summit signpost for a proof photo. It amazes me how many people need to show proof to others that they have summited. Too many people nowadays are climbing the Hyakumeizan in order to increase their social media presence, which seems like the entirely wrong way to go about it. Peak hunting is an entirely selfish and self-serving purpose, and I have to admit back in my younger days, climbing these mountains took precedence over more important people in my life. Alastair and I retreat to a quieter rock outcropping and wait for a break in the clouds and crowds.

Ten minutes later, we have the entire summit to ourselves, reveling in the sunshine and relatively splendid views between breaks in the fog. Perhaps there is a reason to Alastair’s madness after all – push on at a breakneck pace so you can really relish the summit experience. Between bites of refreshments we snap photos and talk meizanHakkyō is Alastair’s 74th mountain, so I quiz him on the remaining peaks and offer a few tips. Those who attempt the 100 peaks usually find themselves inadvertently saving the toughest mountains for last. Indulged as we are in the deep mountain talk, we hardly notice a solo hiker emerge onto the summit through the rising cloud. “Haru”, I ask, unsure if we have indeed summited before her. “Yes”, she replies with her beaming Tohoku smile. Alastair and I congratulate her on reaching peak #83 in her question to climb the 100. “Shall we descend together?”, I inquire, hoping to add a little flavor to our descent back to the car. “Lead the way”, she quips.

Haru, Alastair and I spend the next two hours retracing our steps off the steep slopes of Misen and back to the parking lot at Gyojagaeri tunnel. It is in these relaxed post-summit walks that you can truly appreciate the beauty of the mountains that you give second thoughts to on the approach. Usually in climbs we are too busy inching our way up the slopes with our heads down, gasping for breath and summoning up those extra energy reserves from deep within. As we navigate the undulating folds of the broad ridge, I gaze to the southeast and notice the midday light reflecting off the golden waters of the Pacific in Mie Prefecture, while to my left the skyscrapers of Osaka city peek out from behind the slopes of Yamato-Katsuragi in northern Nara Prefecture. Only in these dizzying heights of the Kii Peninsula can you truly take in the scale of the place. Perhaps Hakkyō is worthy of a more thorough overnight inspection, and I know who to turn to for such an endeavor: a non-peak hunter.

The hardest part about planning a trip to the Kita Alps is finding a clear weather window in Japan’s notoriously fickle summer weather. The second hardest part of trip planning is figuring out a schedule that works for a trio of participants, all of whom are in various stages of the COVID vaccination process. With the Olympics in full swing and COVID-19 infections on an upward trajectory, we set our eyes on July 30th as our target date for an ascent of Niigata’s highest peak, my final summit of what I have dubbed the ‘Japan 47’ – the highest mountain in each of Japan’s 47 Prefectures.

Paul picks me up at Shinano-Omachi station shortly before noon on Wednesday the 28th. The train journey northward takes most of the morning, involving transfers at both Nagoya and Matsumoto stations. Due to the pandemic, the trains are running at a fraction of capacity, with many business commuters curtailing their business trips in favor of online meetings and their own private transport. The mask stays on for the duration of the ride – I’ve grown so accustomed to wearing the protective fabric that even naps are a pleasant affair. In the past, I had always avoided wearing masks as it made me feel as if I was suffocating, but now I hardly notice the minor inconvenience.

After hitting a supermarket for lunchtime snacks, Paul guides his vehicle along the narrow curves of route 325 behind Kashimayari ski resort. At a broad clearing near the top of the lifts, a juvenile kamoshika serow crosses the lane in front of the car, nonplussed by our intrusion as the creature climbs the adjacent forested slopes in search of nourishment. We reach the end of the road and a wave of nostalgia hits, as this is where Fumito and I camped back in June of 2007 during our ascent of Mt Kashimayari. In fact, it is up this same Akaiwa spur route that I now show to Paul. Conditions are exactly as I remember them, with a concrete tunnel built under the dam at the start of the long route. The afternoon heat slows our progress as we ascend the incredibly steep spur towards Takachihodai. Due to our late start, it will be impossible to ascend Kashimayari this time around, but we make good work of the track and give up around after reaching an altitude of around 1700 meters, still 1000 meters shy of Niigata’s highest peak but it is the highest altitude I have climbed in 2021 so far, so every little bit helps.

The following morning dawns clear, so I walk out in front of Paul’s house to a clearing where I stare up at Mt Hakuba-norikura shining bright in the morning sun. These clear morning views are usually short-lived in the summer, with the usual fog and rain clouds moving in for the remainder of the day. After breakfast, Paul and I head up to Kurobishi-daira near the top of Happo ski resort for a quick ascent to Happo Ike before heading down to Hakuba to pick up our friend Naresh. Thick fog and light rain await us as we reach the parking lot, and after a quick assessment, the two of us decide to continue with our plan, knowing we can turn around should the rain showers worsen. Forgoing the ski lifts, Paul leads me up a gravel road through the ski fields until reaching what he has christened “the concrete slope of death”, as the road suddenly turns to paved concrete and ascends directly up the steepest part of the ski slope. We make good time by cutting our own switchbacks through the no-nonsense approach. Halfway up we cross paths with a solo hiker making an unsteady descent down the path which forces me to grimace, knowing our same fate awaits us just a couple of hours later.

At the top of the slope we enter a verdant marshland lined with nikkōkisuge lillies and other colorful wildflowers standing out through the monochromatic backdrop of thick fog. The rain has stopped, giving us hope that what remains above may be a little more promising. At the top of the final ski lift the proper hiking track begins and we run into our first sneakered day trippers of the morning. Most of them are working their way down through the mist. With several paths to choose from, we opt for the lower track, which skirts just below the main ridge past a lingering snowfield on broad wooden boardwalks helping to aid in the ascent. All of a sudden, the fog lifts, revealing a mouthwatering vista of Mt Goryu that sends our hearts racing with excitement. We push on, with the cloud eventually catching up to us as we reach the shores of the pond. Lingering for a few minutes in heightened anticipation, the views gradually open up, revealing brilliant skies of azure hovering above Hakuba-yari. While the remainder of the Hakuba sanzan lay enveloped in cloud, Paul and I are content with just getting a glimpse of the fantastic scenery awarded to those that choose to ascent the ridge leading to Mt Karamatsu. We push on a little higher, reaching an altitude of around 2100 meters – a great acclimatization exercise for the following day’s planned ascent of Mt Korenge.

After picking up Naresh at the station, we head off for lunch and to plan the logistics of our impending climb. With several options to choose from, we decide that sleeping at a park near Hiraiwa onsen affords our best chance of making it to Renge Onsen in time to ascend Korenge for the sunrise. This entails an early start, so after packing and resting at Paul’s house, we eat a quick dinner and head to the hot spring for a quick bath before laying our sleeping bags in the sheltered comforts of the public toilet complex at the end of a quiet road. All is calm as we close our eyes around 8pm, and with the alarm set for 12:45am, we attempt to catch some shut eye. Around 40 minutes later, a rumble in the distance grows louder as it appears that a very large lorry is headed directly for our campsite. A large spotlight shines towards us as the noise crescendos and skirts past our front door. In our rush to catch some sleep we have failed to realize that our meager accommodation sits just meters from the train tracks of the JR Oito line, and our intruder is non other than the infrequent train carriage shuttling passengers to Minami-Otari. Two more trains pass by during the evening, robbing us of a good night’s sleep but still – the show must go on.

We are on the road at 1am as Paul guides his vehicle up the deserted road under the cover of darkness. Our first signs of wildlife suddenly appear, as a wild boar ducks for cover on the grassy slopes while further along, we come face to face with a massive buck who simply stares at us from frightened eyes on the shoulder of the narrow road. Shortly before 2am we park, unload the gear, and set off on our journey towards the alpine. I take the lead, setting a gradual but steady pace past some strong sulfuric fumes wafting from somewhere above. The famed outdoor baths of Renge Onsen sit off in a clearing on our left, and while the appeal of a soothing bath is hard to pass up, we all silently agree that these things are best enjoyed after a hard day on the slopes, so we push on with anticipation.

Our route is lined with a multitude of switchbacks through a healthy forest of hardwoods, and as we reach a clearing we turn off the headlamps and enjoy the moonlit views of Mt Asahi and Mt Yukikura sitting elegantly under calm and starlit skies. Winds are calm, almost unnaturally so, teasing us into thinking that this high-pressure system is sticking around for the long haul. Sweat trickles down my brow as I focus on the rhythm of my footsteps – with such a large vertical elevation change, it’s all you can do to keep your mind off of how much further you have to go. Signposts are affixed at around every 200 vertical meters of elevation gain, and by the time we reach the Tengu’s garden just above 2000 meters in elevation, the eastern horizon hints that dawn will soon be upon us. We still have roughly 3km to go before reaching the tree line, and along the uneven boulders of the rough track, progress is slow but steady. In a race against the rising sun, the luxury of taking breaks has been shelved in favor of maintaining our steady progress. The clink of metal against the rock diverts my attention, and as I turn around I witness Naresh snap his trekking pole in two in an attempt to dislodge it between two stubborn boulders.

We with realization that our race with the sunrise is in jeopardy, I give permission for Paul to push ahead while Naresh and I hold up the rear. Paul wants to gaze at the first light of the new day from as high on the ridge as he can, while the two of us will be happy with ushering in the dawn by the shores of Hakuba-Oike pond. The track skirts the edge of a Erman’s birch forest before giving away to creeping pine and vast swaths of wildflowers carpeting both sides of the trail like a floral arrangement at a bridal fair. The red roof of Shirane-oike hut comes into view, together with the calm waters of the oval tarn. The sun remains hidden behind a thin layer of cloud on the horizon, giving us the upper hand. Naresh takes one look at me and pushes on ahead and for good reason: the higher we climb above the lake the better the vantage point of the rising sun.

It’s amazing how your body can adapt to the lack of sleep and relentless gains in altitude. We’ve been on our feet for nearly three hours and have not paused more than a few seconds to catch our breath, but I feel no fatigue nor drowsiness: it is as if sheer beauty of nature serves as my energy source. At the top of the rise, around an elevation of 2500 vertical meters, Naresh and I find what we are looking for: a small clearing of fist-sized stones which make for the perfect perch for our first break of the day. We have just minutes to spare before the first rays of light reach our face. What better way to celebrate than to break out my stash of chocolate covered coffee beans.

The temperature hovers around 15 degrees in stark contrast to the 30-degree temperatures a couple of thousand vertical meters below us. As the sun makes an appearance, we turn westward, mesmerized at the alpenglow hitting Mt Yukikura and Mt Asahi. Southwest of us, further above the undulating ridge, Mt Korenge sits in a thick swath of morning cloud. Is Paul sitting up in that cloud robbed of a view?

The path meanders past a series of large cairns and up into the true alpine zone, with a plethora of wildflowers, rock ptarmigan, and ever-expanding views to keep the mind off the sleep deprivation. Naresh takes up the rear, soaking in the scenery as I gaze skywards towards the cloud bank still clinging tightly to the summit. At the top of the rise, we reach the summit of Funakoshi-no-kashira and are awarded with our first clear vista of the Daisekkei along with the rest of the Ura-Tateyama mountain range lined up in succession. Stubborn cloud hovers around Mt Kashimayari and Mt Goryu, robbing us of a clear summit profile but our current vantage point demands our undivided attention. Naresh and I pause, taking it all in.

Descending to a saddle, with dizzying drops on our left down to the Ukijima wetlands, we follow the undulating contours of the ridge as it chauffeurs us up and over a series of false summits. I call out Paul’s name just before the crest of each rise before realizing in a dejected sigh that there is still quite some distance to go. Pushed on by an unseen force, the drive to summit Niigata’s highest peak, I continue, footfall by steady footfall, until I glimpse the fog-tinged silhouette of a dozen hikers standing on the true summit as the realization of my impending accomplishment starts to weigh on my emotions. Twenty years has this long journey taken me, not only up the Nihon Hyakumeizan but beyond, to the corner of every prefecture in this geographically diverse archipelago as I attempt to accomplish what no other foreigner, alive or dead, has ever done. My eyes moisten at the thought, but I fight back the tears and take my final steps with a smile instead.

Upon reaching the summit, a round of applause emanates from the other hikers as Paul offers his congratulations. As we set up for celebratory photos, the clouds suddenly part for the first time that fateful morning, leading to an improvised chorus of oohs and ahhs from our mountain spectators. I break out the banner my father-in-law made for me and snap a few photos in the unexpected sunlight. My watch reveals that it is just past 6:30 in the morning, the climb having taken us around four-and-a-half hours. We rest of the summit and enjoy a snack while Paul tries to coax me to continue my hike by summiting Mt Shirouma. Naresh has never climbed that peak but I am not interested in climbing it as the summit is still covered in fog. Plus, I have done what I set out to do, and there’s no reason to risk altitude sickness or a turned ankle by overstaying my welcome. Paul passes me the car keys while I sit on the summit, watching my hiking companions as they disappear toward the enveloping cloud.

With the highest mountain in each of Japan’s 47 prefectures now successfully climbed, I can now announce my retirement from peak bagging. While chasing mountain summits has been a lot of fun, I will no longer let my hiking destinations be determined by a list of arbitrary mountains. From now on, I will make my decisions based on my own criteria, which will mainly involve climbing peaks that look interesting, that lie further off the beaten path, and have not been included on anyone’s subjective list of ‘famous’ mountains. Stay tuned as I continue my travels deeper into the unexplored innards of this amazing country.

Diamond Trail – Finale

3.5 km. Enough sitting around hoping those final few kilometers will climb themselves. Wait too long and the summer heat and humidity will be formidable foes. Climb now and risk a sudden change in the weather. I opt for a coin toss – heads and I go this weekend; tails and I put it off another week. Heads.

I set the alarm for 6am but wake up naturally at 5:30 as daylight filters through the curtains and the cacophony of birdsong force me from my slumber. The rucksack sits tiny in the corner of my office while I double-check the battery in my camera – I am not making that mistake again. The 7:05am train whisks me into downtown Osaka, where the subway deposits me directly in the center of Namba for the long train journey to Kawachi-Nagano. With a bit of time to kill before the first bus to Takihata dam I explore the backstreets and discover the remnants of an ancient inn along the Koya-Kaido, or old road to Koyasan. A gargantuan Kusunoki (Japanese camphor) tree occupies the better part of the hidden garden at the back of the inn. Awestruck I stand, gazing at the massive branches soaring toward the stratosphere. The honk of an annoyed motorist jars me back to reality – I guess the locals aren’t accustomed to tourists blocking the road to gaze up a slice of the forgotten past.

The bus ride involves mountain talk with a trio of young hikers who are planning an ascent of Iwawaki. I warn them about the mamushi who tried to take me out back in April as Murakami-san sends some important intel my way about Mt Makio, my destination for the day. “It’s easy to get lost up there as there are a multitude of tracks”, offers my newfound companion. We exchange contact information upon alighting and I head across the rickety steel suspension bridge for my last hurrah with the Diamond trail.

The signposts guide me to the end of a cul-de-sac and around a farmer’s garden to a narrow track still flowing with fresh rainwater from the previous day’s torrential rain. Greenery immediately engulfs me as I head through a lush canopy of rich foliage. With the rainy season having commenced early this year, the forests are thriving with undergrowth and buzzing with six-legged life. An initial steep climb through a well-worn channel of eroded spur soon gives way to a flat traverse along the steep contours. The stillness of the air sends the sweat glands into full production as a hornet does a quick fly-by before deciding that my stinky body is not worthy of investment.

The track skirts the edge of a washed out escarpment affording views across the valley over to Mt Iwawaki, which looks formidably far from reach. I silently praise myself for having the foresight to cut my hike of Section 5 short at Takihata instead of trying to push it to the end. The soothing aromas of the wet ferns and moss provide an olfactory buzz, as well as a reminder that the mountain slopes are tightly gripped in the claws of the wet season. I edge my way along the narrow path, across the narrow wooden planks spanning older, washed out sections of trail.

Monocultural columns of cedar yield to a verdant labyrinth of hardwoods which guide me to Bote-tōge at roughly the halfway point in the climb. I pause here on a wooden bench to catch my breath and shed a layer. A duo of elderly hikers sit perched nearby, offering informative replies to my anxious inquiries. “You shouldn’t miss the carvings in the main sanctuary”, replies the bespectacled hiker sitting on an adjacent bench. Armed with this extra intel I drop down the opposite valley through yet more fascinating remnants of old growth past. The rich greens of the Mongolian oak canopy glisten in the late morning light seeping through the cloud cover overhead. The bulbous form of Mt Makio rises majestically on the horizon as the track drops toward another secluded valley. Stone jizō statues adorned with Sanskrit adorn the route as a nod to Makio’s Buddhist roots.

Hugging the edge of a gully, the trail descends to a small waterfall in an unnamed watershed and rises up the opposite slop to Banya-tōge. Judging by the name, there must have been some kind of watch tower erected here during the feudal times, perhaps to keep tabs on the movement of pilgrims along this well-traveled route. A head-high barbed wire fence blocks entry down the northeastern slopes, such overdone barriers a common site for paranoid landowners who want to keep unwanted mountain riff raft from encroaching on their hidden caches. Oddly enough, this fence looks recently erected, so perhaps a rogue Diamond Trail rambler recently caused a riotous ruckus, but it could just be the debilitating humidity that conjure up such thoughts.

Another drop down to the northwest brings me to Oiwake junction. Here, the trail crosses a forest road that leads to Takihata dam, an alternative approach for those hikers who adore walking on rugged concrete roads. A signpost indicates that I have just 1000 horizontal meters separating me from the end of the Diamond trail, so I cross over a narrow wooden bridge spanning a gentle brook and climb past the first of many stone building foundations. Sefukuji temple, built in the 6th century, was once a vast temple complex hosting around a thousand monks in training, including Kukai himself. Though is there really any part of Japan that Kōbō Daishi has not marked with his magic touch?

I weave up and around these stone foundation ruins and reach a junction on my left for the summit of Mt Makio. Ignoring this track, I veer left past a collection creeping saxifrage clinging tightly to the top of a low rock wall. My path steepens past a pair of dilapidated structures until reaching the entrance to the main sanctuary of Sefukuji. A nondescript stone marker sits on the ground at the trail junction, identical to the one I had encountered at Donzurubō. The kanji characters for 起点 or kiten flank the righthand side of the marker, informing me that I have indeed reached the end of the Diamond Trail. I breathe a sigh of relief for accomplishing my goal but come to the realization that I am literally in the middle of nowhere. What kind of trail ends on a mountaintop?

A handful of other visitors mill about the modest grounds of the temple. Most are dressed in cotton shirts and sneakers and have taken the easy way up by starting from the parking lot a 20-minute walk downhill on a concrete road. Before paying my respects to the deities, I make an offering to the lords of the privy. Just opposite the restroom sits a small lookout point that affords a vista back across the valley to Mt Iwawaki and further east towards Mt Kongō. I consider pausing here for a rest but decide to pay my respects first. “That’ll be 500 yen” barks the rambunctious temple caretaker, a lady in her mid-60s that exudes that Kansai freewheeling spirit. “Take all the photos you like”, she beams, pointing to the placard indicating that the 500 yen entitles visitors to all the snapshots they wish to take, in perhaps the only temple in Japan that openly embraces technology. “Instagram, Twitter, share anything and everything”, explains my guide. She clearly went to the Osaka school of propriety.

I step up into the sanctuary, turn left, and immediately drop to my knees, gobsmacked by the sheer beauty of central figure of Miroku Bosatsu towering over me. I offer a prayer before raising my lens for the social media masses.

The temple was razed by Nobunaga in the 16th century and burned down a second time near the end of the Edo era, but the statues on display in this main hall were salvaged from the fire and sit here undisturbed. I sit in complete silence, frozen by my inner voice which simply says, “stay”. I enter a trance and let my thoughts wander before exploring the rest of the main hall. I continue clockwise and find the Kannon statue that qualifies for Sefukuji’s inclusion on the venerable list of the 33 temples of the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage.

In back of the main statue sits a wooden carving of Kōbō Daishi flanked on all sides by a plethora of centuries-old wood carvings of Buddhist dieties. Many of these ancient sculpture still retain hints of color. Opposite Kukai’s statue, a reclining Buddha reposes peacefully. Forget the temples of Kyoto. If you really want to awe visitors, bring them to Sefukuji.

Hunger pangs remind me that sustenance is in order, so I begrudgingly retreat from the sanctuary, thank the caretaker, and descend back to the junction for the summit of Mt Makio. The track traverses below the summit before arriving at a narrow ridge. I turn right and follow the contours to the nondescript summit of Mt Makio. An echo of voices below pull me in – a rock formation below the high point purportedly affords mesmerizing views but my maps tell me that the rock formation is off limits to hikers. Still, I push on and find a fellow group of elderly rule breakers and join them on the intrusion. I settle down on the massive boulder and tuck into my lunch.

A couple approaches from the opposite end of the boulder as I quiz them on trail conditions. You see, this trail is also off limits to hikers but they inform me that the path is well-traveled and easy to follow. I check the map and decide to descend directly down to the shuttle bus stop. It is now 12:30, and the next bus is scheduled to depart at one o’clock. I tuck the camera away and settle into a frantic pace that has earned me the nickname of Max Descent from more than one hiker.

I arrive at the bus stop at 12:59 and collapse into an empty seat. Mt Makio not only doubles as the start/finish of the Diamond trail, but it is also the northernmost peak in the Izumi mountains, a full traverse of which has been on my mind for a while. I have already done the southern half of the range, so just 33 kilometers separate myself from a luxurious finish at Inunakiyama hot spring. I vow to return, under the cooler veil of winter when I can enjoy these peaks in better comfort.

All in all, the Diamond Trail is a roundabout way to transfer from the Kintestu-Minami Osaka line to the Nankai Main line, though certainly not the fastest way to change between the two divergent train networks. Now that I have complete the 45-km “long trail”, the million dollar question is: would I recommend it? I think you can find the answer to that inquiry in part 5 of the saga.

The pandemic has forced me to look inward, to forgo travel plans and stick to places closer to home. With Japan’s 3rd State of Emergency about to begin, I focus on unfinished hiking ambitions and once again turn my attention to Osaka’s premier ‘long’ trail. My last outing here saw me cross over the halfway point of the 45km route so I once again leave home before the rush hour onslaught and hop aboard a bus bound for the Chihaya Ropeway at the base of Mt Kongō. The ropeway has recently fallen into ruin and with no budget to repair the rusting structure, the area takes on a neglected, forlorn aura. I march up the road past the turnoff to the old ropeway entrance and pause in front of a teahouse teetering on the brink of collapse. I place the viewfinder to my eye, and snap the shutter to capture an image but silence is all that I receive. I take off my camera and turn it over upside down to find the battery slot as vacant as the ramshackle building at my feet. In my haste to pack in the morning I had grabbed the camera but had left the battery sitting in its charger. With a look of dejection I slip the rucksack off my shoulders and stuff my camera inside, resigned to the fate of yet another burdensome paperweight adding unnecessary weight to the start of a long day.

During my last venture in these mountains, William and I descended down this very forest road and I succinctly remember it being a steep and joyless walk after a long day in the mountains. On fresh legs, however, the steep gradient is manageable as I settle into a brisk pace without the distraction of photography to occupy my time. Any images would simply need to be taken with the subpar smartphone camera. The map suggests allocating 50 minutes to reach the junction of the Diamond Trail at Kuruno-tōge, the place where we last said goodbye to the long-distance route, but I surprise myself by arriving just 20 minutes after alighting the bus. It’s amazing how quickly you can cover ground when you’re on a mission.

From the pass, it’s a series of wooden steps barricaded into the hillside with the grace and dexterity of a seasoned logger: you would think the keepers of the cedar forests would want a gentler approach path but these no nonsense tracks defy both gravity and gradient and seem to have been built as a way to punish hikers for their intrusion into their sacred monocultural hell. I make good work of the stairs and shortly before the clearing on the summit of Naka-Katsuragi I spy a thin spur trail carved through waist-high bamboo which I surmise will take me to the triangulation point. The path weaves hither and tither but on the far side of the plateau I pop out of the maze and into a patch of deciduous forest alive in late spring greenery and reach the true summit of 937m Naka-katsuragi. Instead of pausing, I retrace my steps back to the Diamond Trail and skirt the northern edge of the peak to a head high signpost sitting just off the main track. A clearing here invites me in as I sit down to shed a layer and finish the remnants of my apple pie.

The trail sits firmly on the border of Osaka and Nara Prefectures, the dense cedar forests of the Osaka side contrasting greatly with the hardwood splendor of the southern aspect of the ridge. Through gaps in the immense meadow of bamboo grass I have clear views straight across Gojō city to the mountains of Koyasan and further left, as I crane my neck, the majestic form of Hakkyō, the tallest mountain in the Kansai region, towers above them all. In the clear April air the mountain looks as if you could simply reach out and grasp it with your outstretched hand. I curse myself for having forgotten the battery as cloudless vistas of the Ōmine mountains are a rarity indeed. As I pause to admire the scenery laid out before me, the sound of heavy breathing severs the stillness – an elderly hiker approaches from the west, out of breath from the steep climb on the route that I will soon be taking. I utter a quick salutation before slipping down into the depths of the cedar and out of sight.

Sunlight filters through the long rows of planted cedar and creates tiger-stripe shadows on the broad path at my feet. The heavily trodden route resembles more of a road than a proper hiking path due to the throngs of hikers that make their way up towards Kongō from this longer approach. The bamboo grass sways gently in the breeze pushing in from the east as I follow the contours up and over Mt Takatani sitting just three meters lower than Naka-katsuragi. The dense forest blocks the views but fails to stunt all the growth as a patch of violet wildflowers bloom from beneath the fallen cedar needles.

I decide to take each landmark in as it comes, and after a few undulating bumps in the ridge the track starts to lose altitude abruptly until bottoming out at Chihaya-tōge. This mountain pass is considered to be the shortest route connecting Gojō city in Nara to Minami Kawachi in Osaka, and this route is thought to have been the main route that the pro shogunate troops took to squash the sonnō jōi loyalists in the Tenchūgumi Incident at the end of the Edo era. Nowadays hikers can simply walk up the forest road from Chihaya Akasaka village to this pass and it is on this dirt road that the Diamond Trail now follows briefly before ducking back up to the ridge along a series of ubiquitous log steps.

Step by step I gradually gain altitude until reaching a junction with two possible options. A flat path directly in front of me skirts below the edge of the ridge on what is known as a makimichi but instead of the easy way out I spot a steep trail to my left that sticks to the true ridge and seems to draw me in by its sheer steepness. I have the feeling that the summit of a peak lies at the top of this prominence and my instincts prove correct as I arrive on the broad summit of Mt Jinpuku, a sacred place for practitioners of Katsuragi Shugendō as it is the location of one of the 28 sacred sutra purportedly buried here by En no Gyōja, the founder of Shugendō. I rest here for a snack and to take in the tranquility of the place, thanking myself for having put in the extra effort to make it up to the 792m summit.

Feeling refreshed, I continue along the ridge a short distance before meeting back up with the Diamond Trail a little further south at a junction indicating that Kimitōge is still 6.8km away. Distance is one thing that I would rather not be reminded of when out on long hikes, so I try to purge that reminder from my short-term memory by simply focusing on each footfall, literally taking it one step at a time. Just ten minutes down the track I reach a broad clearing glistening with Yae-sakura flowers in full bloom. These late-blooming cherry blossoms do not receive as much limelight as their Somei-yoshino cousins but I find their pink double-petal design to be quite pleasing on the eye. The clearing affords views of the Ōmine mountains, a perfect place for Shugendō practitioners to blow their conch shells towards the Yoshino motherland. The pass is known as Gyoja-sugi for a very good reason: two monstrous cryptomeria trees stand side by side, with a small sanctuary built in the gap between the two trees. This ancient esoteric practice space just happens to sit directly on the border of Nara, Osaka, and Wakayama Prefectures, and as I take my first footsteps west I bid farewell to Nara and replace it with Wakayama as my trusty left-hand companion.

Thick groves of cedar once again take center stage as I fall into a hypnotic rhythm and barely take notice of the junction at Sugio-tōge. I am slowly closing the distance gap between myself and Kimi-tōge so I keep to my brisk pace as the shadows of the cedars keep me cool in the late morning heat. Eventually the cedar gives way to the new lime-green foliage of a large oak grove as I bask in the sunshine and up onto the summit of Mt Tanbo. The true triangulation point lies on a side path to the north so true to form I once again leave the Diamond Trail behind for the short detour before returning to continue in my westerly march.

A forest road runs tantalizingly close to the ridge on the Osaka side, a popular side route over to Juji-tōge and Amami station, but such escape routes do not appeal to me at the moment – I am in for the long run. Another junction is soon reached at Nishi-no-gyoja, a flat section on the contours that used to be the location of a temple for Shugendō rituals. A pair of wooden benches call to me and I answer: it feels good to sit and stretch the legs while fueling up for the long descent. I am still at over 700 meters of altitude but know that I need to drop to Kimi-tōge at an elevation of 400 meters, so I hold off on lunch at a way to reward myself once I reach the pass.

The path stays flat for the first few minutes until passing by a pair of junctions on my right, but then on cue the first of those godforsaken log steps appears. If they were built like regular stairs they would be quite pleasant to descend, but each step is placed at arbitrary intervals – sometimes they are built too close together while other times it almost takes a leap to reach the next plank. These inconsistencies prevent anyone from establishing a rhythm, so I dance to the beat of my own drum by cursing them at regular intervals. To make matters worse, several hundred stairs into my descent the path suddenly converges upon a concrete forest road. I look around for an indication of where to go before it dawns on me that I must walk down this monstrosity. It’s a good thing that no other hikers are in the vicinity for they would surely conclude that this hiker has a bad case of Tourette’s with the burst of swear words spilling forth from my fractured soul.

I follow the road for just five minutes until I see a signpost ushering me back into the forest, where someone with a sick sense of humor has taken it upon themselves to line the hiking path with concrete as well. This ‘shortcut’ once again spits me out back on the forest road at place called Yama-no-kami, but I fear this particular Kamisama must have been murdered by the construction industry, or perhaps I have found the deity of concrete. Signposts for the Diamond Trail point in the westerly direction of the concrete road, so instead of enjoying a nice mountain track I am relegated to chasing asphalt. Desperate times call for desperate measures as I unload a fury of middle fingers while cursing up a fury.

The concrete spits me out onto more concrete as I reach the immaculate asphalt of route 371. I turn left on the two-lane road and past a construction crew laying yet more concrete on the side of the road. As I head to the top of the pass I finally see the Diamond Trail ducking back into the forest on my right and what should I find but a signpost informing me that Mt Iwawaki is 7km away. I have already covered 10km in my walk, but the last 20 minutes on that concrete has truly set me off, and I want nothing more than to be done with this Diamond Fool’s Gold Trail once and for all. First though, time for lunch. I continue on for another 10 minutes or so, hoping to chip away at the formidable distance until I come across the idyllic environs of Bo-tani-no-ike pond at an elevation of 423 meters. I settle into a wooden bench and proceed to stuff myself with nutrients and polish off the last of the sports drink and green tea.

This is my third time up Iwawaki so I know exactly what to expect. I tell myself there will be no breaks until I reach the summit itself, so I settle into a steady pace up past the electrical pylon and up the wall of wooden steps. I know that once I reach the 3rd stage point (三合目) that the hard part of the climb is over, which seems a bit counter-intuitive as it’s only a third of the way up the mountain, but Iwawaki is a long, gentle beast. Sweat is oozing from every pore as I rise up past the 3rd stage and meet up with the forest road above. That’s right, the next several kilometers involve a relatively flat and almost painfully boring stroll through a thick forest lacking any kind of views.

Unlike my first two ascents, I take every opportunity to explore the side tracks, the first of which soon comes as the forest road cuts around and under Neko-mine (根古峰), but I spot a piece of tape affixed to the tree and leave the road behind to climb up to the summit of the 750 meter peak, which sits in a clearing of golden grasses. I return to the forest road and spy a shortcut through a swath of natural deciduous trees that are pleasing on both the eyes and the feet. This track meets back up with the road at a junction for Mt Minami-katsuragi. I forgo this junction as well as an unmarked side track to Mt Amida and keep to the forest road running to the north. A white utility truck is parked on the shoulder and an elderly gentlemen who must be pushing 80 is out filling in pot holes and cleaning the road of fallen twigs. It seems such a strange location to do road maintenance as the only vehicles to use this road are the ones that hold possession of the key for the locked gate at the start of the road.

The track eventually leaves the road behind and skirts below the ridge on a narrow track past a water source. Filling up is tempting but I am hardly low on liquids so I continue on to skirt past a small section of landslide on my right that drops steeply to the valley below. I keep my eyes glued to the path in order to avoid stepping on any loose rocks that might send me plummeting down the debris field. I place my left foot firmly and stretch out my right foot to take the next step but catch sight of a peculiar brown and beige diamond pattern directly below me. I immediately jump back and let out a yelp, sending my heart racing and my blood pressure skyrocketing to the stratosphere. Sitting directly in the middle of the trail is a mamushi, the venomous Japanese pit viper. At first I think that the snake must be dead as it is literally completely outstretched and lying perfectly still, but as I inch my trekking pole closer, the beast starts shaking its tail in much the same way as its distant cousin the rattlesnake. I pick up a small rock and roll it towards its head and it immediately curls up into strike position. “Now you’ve done it”, I mutter to myself, as the last thing I want to do is to piss off a poisonous snake who is literally sitting right in the middle of the trail.

I give it a large berth as I scuttle down into the landslide debris and safely up the other side. I pray that no other hikers will soon follow me or they will be in for a rather unpleasant encounter. I continue on, fueled by the adrenaline pulsing through my body and trudge past Itsutsutsuji (五つ辻), a tongue-twister of a name that also happens to double as the 7th stage point. My pace starts to wane as fatigue finally starts to set in. Perhaps all of this hiking without a break wasn’t such a good idea. To make matters worse, my asthma starts to act up, with an occasional shortness of breath that forces me to slow up the pace. Luckily I have almost reached the summit and after one final set of log steps I reach the eastern peak of the mountain and can see the bald plateau of the western peak directly in front of me.

Iwawaki is famed for its large meadows of pampas grass but last autumn the entire field was harvested in order to provide thatch for the traditional roofs of the old minka homes in the valley. After harvesting, the entire area was set ablaze in order to prevent trees from taking over, so the peak currently resembles a bombed out war zone. A pair of mountain vegetable pickers scour through the blackened fields in search of spring edibles while I search out my own edibles from beneath my rucksack. I arrive on the summit and settle into a bench, taking in the vistas of the sand apocalypse, for a thick torrent of air pollution and aeolian dust has enveloped Osaka city. Strong winds push in from the city, bringing that nasty elixir to my lungs – the true cause of my asthma attack. I munch on chocolate and polish off the remainder of my morning coffee and look over the map. I am heading toward Takihata village, where a bus will whisk me to Kawachi-Nagano station. By sheer luck, I had managed to remember to check the bus times during my pre-trip planning and find out the next bus is at 4:19pm. Time check: 2:45. Game on.

On goes the facemark to help block out the pollution as I glide down the western face of the peak and back into the forest. I remember the descent as being long but not incredibly steep from my last trip here a few years ago and despite my fatigue, I manage to make good time down to the village. The map says to allow for 90 minutes to reach the village but it takes just over an hour. Instead of heading straight to the bus stop I decide to continue along the Diamond Trail so I can locate the area in the village where the path starts its ascent towards Mt Makio. Meandering past the traditional structures is soothing on the eyes and keeps my mind off of my throbbing feet. I turn at a junction and see a hiker making his was down from Mt Makio. I ask him about the trail conditions as I reach a signpost that indicates Mt Makio, the terminus of the Diamond Trail, is just 3.5km away. Those final three and a half kilometers will have to wait for another day.

 

Diamond Trail – Finale

Nestled deep in eastern Shiga Prefecture in the foothills of the Suzuka mountains sits the untouched beauty of the headwaters of the Kanzaki river, a valley so steep and constricted that it has escaped the wrath of the dam builders. The route was first outlined in Lonely Planet’s original Hiking in Japan guide back in 2001, but due to a massive blunder with the name of the bus stop, very few users of that guide were able to negotiate the access point in the days before digital mapping and smartphone technology. Fast forward ahead two decades and I find myself with a rare opportunity to explore the gorge with my Japanese friends Haru and Hisao. Hisao picks me up at Nagoya station shortly before 7am on a brisk weekend morning in late March. After swinging by Haru’s house we hit the road for the trailhead on the Mie side of the Suzuka range, finding it easier to follow the Lonely Planet route in reverse by climbing up to Nakatōge from Asake campground. The parking lot is absolutely heaving as we squeeze in for one of the last available spaces. Everyone and their grandma seems intent on climbing Mt Shaka on this chilly morning but we have other plans.

We start by following the paved road uphill toward the headwaters of the Asake river. Unfortunately the dam builders have ensured that the upper reaches of the gorge are anything but spectacular, but we veer off the road a short time later and cross the river along a series of wobbly granite boulders to traverse the contours of the hillside due west to reach a narrow 10-meter waterfall tumbling through a thin channel of crumbly rock. The path appears to disappear here until Haru spots a series of ropes strung alongside a massive rockfall chute that looks set to dislodge itself at any moment. I let Haru take the lead and climb high enough and stay out of the fall zone so that any dislodged rocks tumble harmlessly down the chute to my right. I grasp onto a fixed rope and hoist myself toward the skyline.

Hisao follows next as Haru and I pause at the top of the chute and veer north above the waterfall and onto more stable ground in the upper reaches of the gorge. The scenery soon turns into that classic Suzuka spectacle of old growth deciduous forest wrapped around mossy granite rocks strewn about the forest floor. The trees are still in the midst of their winter hibernation, the branches bare and desolate as the sun struggles to break through the morning veil of cloud. The route traverses east past a watershed and along the edge of an enormous gap in the hillside caused by an immense landslide extending all the way from the ridge to the base of the mountain. A lone evergreen clings tightly to a cliff face in the middle of this contorted mess in an apparent imitation of the Lone Cypress of Pebble Beach.

We reach the carpeted moss of Naka-tōge, a broad saddle straddling the border of Mie and Shiga Prefectures. Here the Lonely Planet guide advises hikers to follow the ridge to the southwest over Mt Suishō and onward to Kunimidake and Yunoyama Onsen. The three of us linger briefly in order to study the maps and moisten our dry mouths with liquids. A clear signpost points east for lower crystal valley (下水晶谷), so we drop off the ridge and follow this trail down into Shiga Prefecture and the gorge below. The track is hard to pick up in places, and if not for the tape marks affixed to the trees it would be easy to veer off route. However, we mostly stick to the natural features of the land and let the dry creek bed of the narrow valley channel us down toward the lower portions of the ever steepening slopes.

Ten minutes into our ascent we find a reassuring site in a pristine blue-and-white signpost that looks recently erected by the tourism bureau of Komonocho of Mie Prefecture. If someone has spend the time and money to create such a well-designed way mark then you can bet that they have also ensured that the route is regularly maintained. Our dry route soon connects with an underground spring trickling down to meet the gorge, so we follow the right bank of the watershed until it deposits us at a junction indicating that the suspension bridge spanning Kanzaki gorge is unsafe to cross. We ignore the warning and head left to investigate the current state of the metal suspension bridge.

The Lonely Planet guide advises hikers to cross over the bridge and continue up the route we had just descended in order to reach Nakatōge, but anyone attempting to traverse over the twisted and tangled ruins of the bridge would truly be a fool. As Hisao and I stare in disbelief, Haru sheepish admits that he actually crossed the span during his last trip here a few years ago. The structure looks as if it could collapse and fall into the emerald green waters of the gorge at the slightest touch.

Fortunately sanity prevails and we retreat down to the river’s edge in search of a place to cross the broad river. Haru takes the lead and manages to cross one particularly hairy section of submerged rocks without slipping off and falling to the frigid waters. I follow next, looking for any sort of boulder that would provide a secure location to bear my weight but I retreat in defeat. Since we have only just begun our hike, I would rather not spend the remainder of the day with wet socks if it can be helped. Instead, I head downstream 50 meters and reach an area of whitewater lined with large, steady boulders and what I have dubbed the Suzuka ‘leap of fate’. You see, there’s a gap of about a meter and a half that needs to negotiated and the most logical way through is to simply leap across. The problem is that the start of the leap is from a wet boulder which you could easily slip out from underneath at the very start of your jump. I take off my backpack and toss it across the gap safely before placing my camera around my trekking pole and carefully stretch it across the water to Haru’s waiting arms. Finally I throw both of my trekking poles across and am only left with one task: JUMP!

My technique is the standing long jump, and I nail the landing with the precision of an Olympic athlete. I gather up my gear and turn around in time to watch Hisao take the leap with a mighty scream that surely helps propel his forward momentum. All three of us remain dry and safely cross the first real obstacle in our traverse.

The second challenge comes soon after, as we follow the tape marks up an impossibly steep gully lined with wet, mossy rocks. Haru scales the gully first, somehow managing to top out without sending any debris our way. I follow next and gain my confidence after an initial uneasiness in my steps. Hisao also makes quick work of the mess and we find the trail proper through a short bushwhack and head downstream. Ten meters further down we reach a trail junction indicating the real river crossing which we somehow completely missed.

A broad river bank awaits our footsteps, through an idyllic forest of hardwoods and rhododendron. The stone foundations of huts built for the production of charcoal emerge periodically beneath the undergrowth. The forest provides the perfect environment for the Edo-era craftsmen: plenty of oak trees and a constant supply of water to douse the red hot embers burning away in the earthen kilns. Haru pauses for a quick thought about the long-lost art.

We follow the contours of the land, traversing up and around natural features in the gorge and past countless streams depositing their payload of water into the main river as it shuttles their gifts toward Lake Biwa. At one particular stream crossing we lose sight of the tape marks and head down to the river bed itself for a bit of boulder hopping until the gorge once again becomes too constricted and we climb the precipitous river bank until finding the track again higher above. After an hour of this cat and mouse game of route finding, we reach Hirosawa, which true to its name is a broad fork in the river that is marked as a campsite in the Lonely Planet guide. Haru drops to our right in order to find a place to cross the fork while Hisao and I head straight to meet the whitewater head on. We find a beach area that would definitely make a great place to camp along the edge of the green water, if not for the plethora of leeches in the summer that is.

Haru shouts from the opposite side of the bank. Not only has he found a way to cross but he has also stumbled upon the trail and ushers us across. I can clearly see him on the top of a spur, so I make my way over to an area with an abundance of dry boulders and hop my way across, scaling the steep river bank while grasping onto tree roots to propel me up to Haru’s location. Hisao follows my footsteps in unison and our reunited trio marches along downstream through the heart of the gorge.

Narrow is an understatement in certain sections of this hidden gem of a waterway, and the route spends a fair amount of the time climbing up to traverse along a spur high above the waters themselves. Mossy boulders present themselves at the apex of the spur, tempting us to place our feet on them but we refuse to give in to their silky temptation. Haru speeds along and we can just catch sight of him during our descent towards the gorge. Rumblings in my stomach remind me that not only am I hungry but that we’ve been speeding along with nary a break.

We cross a stream and reach a junction with a handprinted sign pointing towards Tengu falls. I glance at the sign a take note of the Chinese characters for ‘danger’ written alongside in parentheses. I can hear the roar of the cascade as Haru escorts us along a narrow rocky track and through a series of fixed ropes fastened to the rocks. The last of the ropework is completely vertical, dangling over the edge of a cliff so steep that no footholds can be seen. Haru slides down the line and pops out on a massive boulder sitting on the edge of the water and just opposite Tengu’s spout. Descending vertical ropes has never been my forte but I carefully lower myself to safety and wipe the sweat from my brow while taking a seat near Haru. Hisao lets out a gasp before he too descends to our lunch spot. I pull out the sports drink and down it in nearly one gulp while fishing through the rucksack in search of calories.

Haru pulls out a hot thermos to make a quick brew of coffee and proceeds to snack on a vial of seed that looks like it belongs in a feeder. Birdseed and coffee, lunch of champions I suppose. We are sitting in the bowels of the gorge, a section of river untouched for centuries. The waters have carved these cliffs for millennia and have probably hosted a dinosaur or two during their tenure. It is refreshing that such places exist and I can see why the guidebook recommended this place. As I scan through the description, though, I see that they have failed to mention this side trip down to Tengu falls, easily the best part of the day so far.

After lunch we retrace our steps back up the cliff and continue heading downstream. We once again climb high above the waters to traverse along a narrow spur before dropping down to the river’s edge at a junction. This is the other campsite marked in the guidebook: from here you can simply cross the river and continue downstream to Yuzurio (somehow mislabeled as Nakahata in the Lonely Planet) and take a bus to Eigenji Shako but for us we leave the guidebook behind and instead head up Shirataki-dani, the valley of white falls. Even Haru admits that it is his first time on this route, so we start our ascent with an extra spring in our step until falling into that regular rhythm that typically accompanies a slog.

The route is pleasant enough and spends most of the time on a long incline through forests of cedar sprinkled with beech and oak from time to time. We stick mostly to the right bank of the river until ascending up past Shirataki, which resembles more of a whitewater channel than an actual waterfall. After passing by the ruins of a forestry hut (once used by the cedar plantation farmers mind you), the route turns old growth deciduous once again in the uppermost reaches of the gorge. Here the Suzuka mountains once again remind you of their spellbinding beauty.

Signs posted to the trees alongside the crystal-clear waters of the stream warn visitors that fishing without permission is strictly prohibited. Nevertheless, we come across a trio of men with their rods cast out, perhaps hoping to catch the endangered white-spotted char. I flash them the evil eye while they tuck their heads into their jacket hoods as the track climbs above the last of the waters and onto a root-smothered path that safely chauffeurs us back up to the ridge line and the Mie Prefectural border. We turn right, joining throngs of other day trippers on a narrow track lined with white Andromeda flowers. We ignore a junction and climb to a rocky prominence known as Hatomine. Upon reaching the summit, the howling winds blowing in from across the valley send us retreating for cover. Thick cloud has blown in from Ise Bay, threatening to gift us an afternoon shower. Peering down into a mountain pass just below the summit, the white sandstone makes the perfect setting for some mountain graffiti, as someone with a sense of humor has crafted a giant heart out of loose rocks and penned the word ‘Happy’ below. Japanese people love word play, and even though the peak is named after the dove (hato), it resembles the loan word for heart (haato) and has thus captured everyone’s affection.

The three of us drop down to the artwork and turn left at the pass, down the switchbacks of the eastern face of the peak and past a rock dam that was built in the Meiji era by Dutch engineer Johannis de Rijke, who is best known as the architect of the Lake Biwa Canal in Kyoto. It is a shame that concrete has taken center stage over these traditional breakwater dams. Nowadays the dams are built without any regard to the landscape or aesthetics, but in de Rijke’s time they were a work of art and exquisitely constructed, having stood intact for over a century.

Just past this dam is the start of the forest road that takes us back to the car which we follow with uplifted spirits for having explored one of Kansai’s truly gorgeous places.

The Hoshida 60 Finale

The old temple ruins of Komatsuji sit directly opposite the summit of Mt Ibarao, separated by a steep descent to a long saddle now occupied by the fairway of the 4th hole of the golf course. I would need to drop down to the links, cross the fairway, and continue up the wooded hillside to reach the summit of what is now known as Dōato-mine (堂跡嶺). The time has come to finally search for these long-lost relics of Shingon past.

I leave the house in late afternoon under a half moon and calm skies, trudging up past Eitokuji (see Chapter 4and up a deserted track to the saddle between Mt Shiramine and Mt Koban-no-mine (see Chapter 1). I pause here for a drink and to give a little time for the sun to fully drop behind the western horizon. All is calm and quiet up here, and the lack of other visitors gives a remoteness that you don’t usually find so close to civilization. My route this evening will involve following the course of Chapter 1 in reverse order, a fitting way to finish off this saga.

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I drop under the rope and along the now-familiar ridge to Mt Ōtani, now my third trip to the summit. From a clearing in the trees just below the summit I can see the 4th fairway and my target peak sitting off just to the south, looking so easily accessible if not for the forest of undergrowth and steep slopes lying in between. I drop off the peak and down to the narrow valley, crossing the stream on the duo of steel ladders bolted to the river bank. Here I turn left and into a layer of thick bamboo grass which forces me to crawl on my belly in order to navigate past the dense thickets of retina slashing leaves. I somehow make it to the teeing ground and clamber over an awkwardly constructed wire mesh animal fence. I dart across the fairway and enter the forest beyond, and up the incredibly steep slopes towards the summit ridge.

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Going is slow and tough, mostly by the fact that there is absolutely no trace or trail to speak of. I grab onto whatever I can find including a thorn bush which leaves its fang marks on my left palm. This is already off to a bad start.

In the fading light of day I do reach a flattened plateau about a third of the way up the knob. There definitely used to be some kind of structure here, but the thick undergrowth makes it impossible to make out any kind of foundation ruins. Ditto for a second and then final steppe above. I check the GPS and realize I have reached the summit plateau. If there is a summit signpost up here I will never find it – thick bamboo thwarts my progress and it is impossible to go much further without a machete. I raise my camera to snap a photo but the shutter fails to focus. I reach around to touch the filter ring and feel a void where the ring and the entire front element used to be – they have fallen off my camera and will definitely never be located without some major excavations.

I suppose this is an apt outcome considering I am not really supposed to be wandering around overgrown, trackless knobs at night. Just a week prior, I had dropped my camera and thought all was well, but perhaps the damage had yet to show itself until I needed it most. I still snap a shot just in case, which results in a blurry unrecognizable image that would probably fetch some money if shot by a famous abstract artist.

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The final light of the day is now completely gone, so I turn on the headlamp and retrace my steps back to the fairway and navigate the open space by the illumination of the half moon now directly overhead. Instead of heading back to the overgrown swamplands by the stream, I see a building directly in front of me, which in this dim light looks exactly like a temple gate. Could this be the location of the original entrance gate to the complex? As I get closer I realize that it’s just a concrete rest house for fatigued golfers, though if you can’t get through 4 holes of golf without needing a break perhaps you shouldn’t out there at all.

Instinct draws me near, and sure enough at the back of the structure I find a much easier place to hop the fence and manage to find a very clear and relatively easy spur that connects to the ridge line above. This must surely have been the access point to the temple all of those years ago. I regain the ridge just below Mt Benzaiten and breathe a sigh of relief for having made it through the backcountry without encountering any boar or ghosts of monks past. The final undulations along the ridge are pleasant under the light of my headlamp and the warm spring winds at my back.

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It’s hard to believe that I am now descending that initial ridge trail that I took way back in November during my very first outing in the Hoshida hills. Regaining Mt Ishibashi, peak #1 feels like the completion of a mandala, a fitting way to finish off what I initially estimated would take a year to complete.

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The following morning, I head out once again to put the final pieces of the puzzle together. When Komatsuji temple fell into ruin, the principal image, an eleven-faced Kannon statue, was moved to Hoshida shrine in 1703. There it sat for nearly 200 hundred years until the post-feudal government of the Meiji era dictated the separation of Buddhism from Shintoism (shinbutsu bunri). Instead of the statue being destroyed, a Shingon temple was constructed directly next to Hoshida shrine, and now the two live together as awkward neighbors. The Shinto grounds of Hoshida (星田) retained the Japanese reading, while the temple took on the older Chinese reading and became Shōdenji (星田寺).

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I pass through the temple gate and enter the modest temple grounds, finding a square structure on my right that houses the Kannon statue. The figure is difficult to see through the reflections in the glass, so I put my face against the glass and block out the extra light in order to view the important cultural property. I imagine myself sitting on top of Dōato-mine, praying to this image in the middle of a beautiful forest surrounded by the rugged peaks of the Hoshida mountains. I mutter a quick word of thanks to the goddess and wonder around the compact temple grounds. A quartet of stone stupa from the Muromachi era are displayed on a raised stone bed, salvaged from the grounds of the old temple during the construction of the golf course. This is all that is remains of Komatsuji nowadays, apart from a larger collection of stupa and Jizo statues in a grotto flanking the western foothills of Mt Myoken.

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I head over to the grotto, whose access point is adorned with a simple sauwastika across the top of an unadorned entrance gate. I walk to the end of a short walkway and find dozens of ancient Jizo statues lined up in formation. They have been salvaged from the surrounding hills, relocated here in hopes of protection from the elements. Just next to these images, on a wall running at a right angle, sit the remnants of Komatsuji’s cemetery, moved from the golf course to here instead of being bulldozed entirely.

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So what started off as a simple mountain mission for a bit of fitness has turned into quite the learning experience, as I have discovered the historical importance of my forgotten corner of Osaka Prefecture.

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